Sober up from the Olympics and turn to some real competition: the race between the Democratic and Republican parties to see who can stage the most boring national political convention. The nominees have already been picked, the platforms – which will be totally ignored – have been hammered together, the meaningless speeches of platitudes are written to say as little as possible, and 95 percent of the voters have already made up their minds. So why pay any attention? Because these two clambakes are the funniest circuses we put on every four years.
First, we must address the sites. The 2012 Republican National Convention will be held in Tampa, Florida, starting on Aug. 27. The thinking goes that whatever candidate is nominated in whatever state gives that candidate a boost there. It’s why the GOP chose Florida, the Hanging Chad State. Tampa strip clubs are bracing for a major business. An industry survey of previous conventions shows the Republicans (motto: Family Values) outspend the Democrats at flesh pots three to one — $150 to $50.)
The Dem gathering is set for Sept. 3, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Tar Heel state wasn’t picked at random, either. President Obama won the NC’s 15 electoral votes by just 13,692 votes out of more than 4.2 million cast. He needs a repeat performance. TV networks would prefer that both parties stage their conventions in the same town. It saves on moving those caravans of equipment and hair blowers.
Now let’s look at the conventions themselves. The first one was held by the anti-Masonic Party in 1832, which has, of course, maintained its stranglehold on American politics ever since. The longest was the Dem convention in 1924 which lasted 16 days and 103 ballots. During JFK’s 1960 campaign, he cited the dilemma of the Massachusetts delegation at that convention when making light of his own campaign problems: “Either we must switch to a more liberal candidate or move to a cheaper hotel.”
Where the delegates are seated is of prime importance. Obama’s home state of Illinois will be front row at the Dem convention. In honor of Romney, the Republicans will use their front rows for delegates from the Cayman Islands. Delegates from Texas, so red that politics is considered a spectator sport, will be lucky to even get into either convention hall. Funny hats and signs will abound. In Tampa, expect to see mittens – as in Mitt — like those We’re Number One foam hands they keep waving at sporting events. The donkeys will be waving Hawaiian birth certificates.
There are some tell-tale events and scenes to watch for. Who gets prime time TV spots? Obviously Obama and Romney, but who else? Not Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Candidates in tight races who need the TV exposure back home will make a tape of their speech that will be shown 1,287 times in local commercials. George W. won’t be speaking. He won’t even attend the convention, which lets the GOPers off the hook. I mean, showcasing a person who left the Oval Office with 20 percent approval rating is a downer. LBJ didn’t attend the riotous, literally, 1968 Dem convention in Chicago. The party had quite enough on its hands what with Mayor Richard Daley’s cops beating the idealism out of anti-war protesters. I love the smell of tear gas in the morning.
Look for the time overruns. Officials at these conventions know the main reason we even have them anymore is the dwindling TV audience. So schedules are important, remembering the1972 Dem convention in Miami Beach which ran so long that presidential nominee George McGovern gave his acceptance speech at – get this – 2 in the morning. Snore. Look for Dan Rather being hustled off the convention floor, again, while yelling, “But those Air Force documents were genuine!” And note that every delegate will be texting, tweeting and staring at their iPad.
These conventions are a far cry from the old days. Television started covering the conventions in 1952. The six-inch black and white DuMonts would show Speaker Sam Rayburn pounding his gavel and running a well-organized program. Same with the GOP. It was “gavel-to-gavel coverage,” the networks boasted. And everybody watched, because often there was real tension in the air, and fist fights on the floor. We witnessed expectation, surprises and last minute deals.
Then, gradually interest waned. The states started having primaries earlier and earlier, so the candidates were pretty well chosen by the time the conventions rolled around. Like this year. Less and less prime time was given by the networks to the conventions. In recent years, the major networks have crammed the entire day into one hour. Still, no doubt C-SPAN will cover everything, while MSNBC will be all over the Dem convention and Fox will treat the GOP function like a space shot propelling Ronald Reagan.
Sometimes the speeches are so boring that the networks need Program Helper to pad out the dullness, so they turn to filler tapes: “Let’s look at the early years of the mayor of Minot.” Or the anchor cuts away to interview, uh, another journalist. “Tell us, Sherri Lou Betty Sue, what’s the sense on the floor of the Idaho delegation about the Chinese military buildup in Yellow Sea?” “Well, Brian, most of those said they didn’t know and didn’t care and were just here to party. Like me.” That’s what we’ll be seeing.
I’ve covered many a national nominating convention and quickly discovered that most of the delegates can’t hear the speeches. Meanwhile, the media are not in the press section in the main hall but in the press room, watching the proceedings on C-SPAN. The view is better, the drinks are stronger and the laptop is closer. It was in the press room at the Republican gathering in New Orleans in 1988 where we watched nominee George H.W. Bush speak, then we all jumped to our almanacs and GOP guidebooks while asking one another, “What’s a Dan Quayle?”
Ashby is conventional at firstname.lastname@example.org